On Bret Lott:
Bret Lott is the bestselling author of 14 books. He has served as writer-in-residence at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, spoken on Flannery O’Connor at the White House, and was a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2006 to 2013. He teaches at the College of Charleston.
“Halo” first appeared in Arts & Letters Issue 5.
He gave the cashier his money—a twenty and a five—and waited for change, the blanket already in the white plastic bag.
He needed the blanket because he knew it would be cold tonight, sleeping in the car. Of that much he was certain: the cold, him in the car, this blanket.
His wife, the woman he’d loved all these years, had kicked him out over what he’d said once they had arrived at the end of the argument: “Whenever I tell you something and you can’t remember it, it’s because I never told you,” he’d said there in the kitchen, certain of the words lined up, certain of the sense they made. Certain, certainly, of the truth they would speak of the way their lives worked. “But whenever you tell me something and I don’t remember it,” he went on, “it’s because I wasn’t listening.”
He’d said it, there in the kitchen, and he’d nodded hard once at her, put his hands to his hips for the certainty in the world he’d outlined with just those words.
She was quiet a moment, a moment filled, he was certain, with her recognition of his keen and convicting insight into the injustice of her perceptions: she believed her words went unheeded by him, and believed his words had never been spoken. He was certain of all this in just that moment.
And in that moment he was certain he still loved her. He loved her.
But then she spoke: “You understand,” she said, and put her own hands to her own hips, and in that movement, a movement that bore extraordinary witness to her own certainty, he’d seen that his own certainty in his own words had been only a vague notion, a moment of smoke. Nothing more.
“Now you understand,” she said. “Finally,” and she nodded once at him, but gently, carefully, the care she gave the gesture all the more proof of how certain she was.
That was when she turned from him, took the requisite steps to the kitchen door and opened it wide, swept her hand toward the darkness outside like a game show girl. She said nothing more, so certain she was he knew what she meant by this move.
And he knew.
He watched the cashier’s hands in the drawer, watched the efficiency and certainty with which her fingers extracted the correct number of coins, the single dollar bill, then tore from the register the receipt, handed all of it to him in just one moment. He looked at her hands a moment more, then her face, in him a kind of unbidden awe at the sureness of her hands, of these moves.
Then, the moment over, he took the money, the receipt, lifted the white plastic bag from the counter, and left. She hadn’t noticed the moment her hands had been held out to him, or his moment of watching her, and he wondered if in fact there had ever even been this moment between them. Maybe he’d imagined that instant, he thought.
The automatic doors opened, and he stepped out into the night air, felt the chill and the damp. It would be cold tonight. He was certain of that.
He started off, away from the store, and into the lot. His car was here. He was certain of that, too. He would have a place to sleep. And he had this blanket.
He walked, and walked, passed beneath first one parking lot lamp and then another, each lamp casting thin halos of light down around him while he looked for his car.
He knew it was here somewhere, here on this aisle, ten or twelve slots down. On the right. Or maybe it was the next row over. Maybe a few more slots down.
But the lot was nearly empty for how late it was, and he did not see his car here.
He felt his skin prickling over for the damp out here then, and for the dark, felt how strange and alien this feel was as he walked, as though his skin were that of someone else, moving on its own in reaction to things out of his control: the temperature of the air, the turn of the earth away from the sun, the ability of air to hold water within it.
He stopped, just inside yet another thin halo of light.
Where was his car?
And did he love his wife still, despite the way words worked in their world?
And then, in the feel of his skin prickling over, and in the growing recognition of his misplacing an item as large and important this night as his car, and in the weight of the blanket in his arm, even in the vague halo within which he stood—a halo, he saw, like words lined up believing in their certainty, only to be found as hollow as his hands on his hips, as empty as a solid single nod—inside all this, he began to wonder:
What made me believe it might be cold at night? And when did I come to believe night would come?
Of what am I certain?
He breathed in, breathed out. He felt himself swallow, though he could not be certain that was indeed what he felt.
Quickly he took the white plastic bag from beneath his arm, held it and what was inside it out in front of him, held it with both hands, his hands trembling now in the smallest way but holding on tight, as if the bag and what was inside it and even his hands, his arms, himself might all disappear this moment.
What do I know?
And now he felt even truer, even dearer the earth turning upon its axis, felt deeply and dreadfully himself hanging from this round planet head outward and into space, felt too the wind of all space blow unforgiving and uncaring through him at whatever speed this unheeding planet revolved around the sun, and at whatever speed this unmerciful galaxy blew from its beginning toward its ever-expanding end, felt all of it in just that moment.
Then finally, horribly, he felt fear move inside him, rising, unbidden and awful.
He looked at the bag and his hands and his trembling, looked and looked, and wondered with a deep and incalculable wonder:
What does the word Blanket mean?
And what is Car?
He looked then to the circle of light in which he stood, saw the asphalt and white lines in this thin light begin to tremble of their own, the world shivering beneath him as sure and certain as the cashier’s hands had measured money.
What is Halo? he wondered.
He looked up to the parking lot lamp then, felt himself go blind for it, as though scales were being settled into place instead of falling away, while still the earth shivered beneath him, and now the air around him began to swirl, and swirled, and lo! he felt himself lifted, felt himself rising into the pitch and twirl of the air, felt himself lifted and lifted into the vortex of swirling air and shivering earth and incalculable words that surrounded him, until he felt at last each molecule—if there were such a thing, or a word for it—explode into nothing, himself at its center, and nothing. Nothing at all.
What is Love? he wondered then. And finally. Finally.